ELVIS IN VEGAS: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, by Richard Zoglin. Simon and Schuster, 304 pp. $28.
When the U.S. Postal Service honored Elvis Presley with a stamp in 1993, they threw it open to the public to decide which Elvis should be featured: the young, sexy Elvis in his 1950s heyday, or the older, heavily bejeweled Elvis who played some 800 shows in Las Vegas during the first half of the 1970s.
Young Elvis won, but I am willing to bet that Richard Zoglin was, like me, one of a quarter of a million Americans who voted for Vegas Elvis. Zoglin's smart and entertaining book, "Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show," combines genuine affection for its subject with a keen sense of show-biz history and a lively style.
"Elvis in Vegas" proceeds from the premise that Presley's time in Las Vegas, which ran from 1969 almost until his death in 1977, was not the sad pandering of an over-the-hill star but — at least during the beginning of the run — a set of performances of enduring power. Along the way, in Zoglin's formulation, Elvis effectively transformed an industry that had grown outdated and stale and set it on the path to renewed popularity.
The book's title is slightly misleading: at least half of it is taken up with a breezy history of Vegas in its Rat Pack glory years that sets the stage for Elvis's arrival. This is no loss, though: Zoglin's survey of Vegas from its postwar years has snap and verve. "Vegas shows were brash, upbeat and high-energy," he writes. "The comedians were fast, loud and in-your-face."
Along with the requisite Frank-and-Dean-and-Sammy anecdotes, "Elvis in Vegas" provides appreciative accounts of the considerable craft that went into the mainstage casino shows, often dismissed as a wasteland of tacky shlock.
Gifted choreographers like Donn Arden and Ron Lewis "brought a vibrant, jazzy style to Vegas dance" that "had a mix of precision, style and splash that outsiders often missed."
Meanwhile, in the casino lounges, a generation of irreverent and often profane comics were putting their stamp on American comedy. Zoglin's account of Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, and Shecky Greene ("a free-form improvisational force of nature" and "spontaneous mayhem") shows that these men, whom many tend to think of as tired old hacks, were once young and vital, even ... revolutionary.
This is outstanding pop-culture history, even before it gets to the King. When it does, Zoglin's canny revisionist flair ratchets up into high gear. For Zoglin, Elvis' return to performing marked the beginning of the transformation of Las Vegas from seedy playground for Sinatras and Kennedys to wholesome family destination. "It took the Rat Pack's breakup and Sinatra's flameout," Zoglin writes, "to make Las Vegas safe for Elvis Presley."
And Presley's performances in 1969 and 1970 give the lie to the popular conception of Elvis as a pathetic, drug-addled sellout who "had become a parody of himself." These shows were a continuation of the famous comeback concert, televised on NBC in December 1968, that revealed a rejuvenated Presley, backed by an ace studio band, attacking his songbook with relish.
In Vegas, Presley hit the stage "skinny as a knife," in the words of one observer, and delivered a show that was crackling with energy and drive. His "rich, heaving baritone" gave "the early songs more body and weight, without losing the rocking energy." The ballads showcased his "ability to transform a conventional love song into something grander and more emotional." It wasn't until 1971 that his performances became erratic, and his voice remained strong almost until the end.
Zoglin, a longtime entertainment editor at Time magazine, had previously written a well-received biography of Bob Hope, published in 2014. It would be going too far to say that Zoglin managed to make Hope seem cool — some mountains just cannot be scaled — but he has an evident ability to see what is valuable in figures like Hope and Vegas-era Presley who are usually dismissed as terminally irrelevant.
For all their glitz, Presley's shows in Vegas were genuine aesthetic accomplishments — "schmaltz raised to the sublime." There remains something profoundly American about their combination of artifice and guilelessness; through them both, Elvis and Vegas became an "authentic, and somehow lovable, expression of all-American kitsch."
When Presley died, the great critic Lester Bangs wrote that "I won't bother saying goodbye to his corpse; I will say goodbye to you." By this Bangs meant that Presley was the last figure for whom Americans could feel united in their love. As Zoglin shows, we are saying goodbye still.